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Genetic science research

Cosmos grant to support Biosciences student seeking treatment of drug-resistant bacteria

Alena James in the lab
Alena James in the lab. Photo provided.

The increase in bacteria capable of resisting some of the strongest medications available poses a serious threat to the health of all people. It is critical that researchers identify new ways to treat these infections and Biosciences PhD student, Alena James, is up to the task. She recently received a $5,000 Cosmos Scholar Grant to support research focused on different ways to treat one of these bacteria.

James’ research is an extension of a larger study funded by the Peer Reviewed Medical Research Program and led by Monique van Hoek, Professor of microbiology and infectious diseases in Mason’s School of Systems Biology. Van Hoek’s study focuses on Toxin-Antitoxin systems in bacteria and seeks to disrupt the ability of the "antitoxin" gene to regulate the "toxin" gene—ultimately killing the bacteria. If this approach proves successful, this would be a large step towards new treatments for bacteria that are otherwise resistant to available medications.

James will use the funding received through the Cosmos Grant to apply this approach to the biothreat bacterium Francisella. According to van Hoek,  “the ability to specifically target expression of the toxin gene and cause bacterial cell death is a promising strategy in the fight against multidrug-resistant and dangerous bacteria.”

James earned a BA in Political Science and BS in Biology from Winthrop University, followed quickly with a Master’s in biology. James said she always held an interest in microbiology. As one of four children, she saw firsthand how financially difficult doctor and hospital visits could be on her parents. James said she wanted to be armed with enough medical knowledge to either treat herself and family directly, or allow her to make more informed decisions during health care visits.  

“My knowledge is power and the more I know about infectious diseases and about human anatomy I feel like I’m empowered to try and make small changes to protect myself and those I love against small microorganisms,” said James.

James started her career as an adjunct professor, teaching microbiology at York Technical College, and then continued her education with an MS in Biodefense from Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Her MS led to several internships and contract supporting assignments with the government, including the State Department. Upon receiving an ORISE STEM Fellowship (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education), James handled biodefense projects, including risk management and risk analysis, for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate

While continuing full-time contract work, James said she wanted to further her education once more in microbiology—leading to her acceptance in Mason Science’s PhD in Biosciences. 

“Everyone in the program is supportive and we really push each other and learn from one another” James said. “Dr. van Hoek has created a really safe space for everyone.”

James said she was thrilled to see she was assigned van Hoek as a mentor after receiving her acceptance letter to the program. “I was familiar with her work and reached out to her immediately to start working in her lab.” 

James said she felt honored to receive Cosmos funding to support her research, as it recognizes the hard work she continues to put forth while balancing her full-time job. She hopes her work will support current scientific research and open the door to broader applications.